Tag Archives: Federal Regulation (U.S.)

‘Stealth Bailout’ Shovels Millions of Dollars to Oil Companies – Valero gets $110 million in pandemic giveaway

Photographer: Vincent Mundy / Bloomberg

Bloomberg News, By Jennifer A Dlouhy, May 15, 2020

  •  Stimulus tax change helps translate losses into instant cash
  •  Oil companies are uniquely poised to benefit, analysts say

As it headed toward bankruptcy, Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc. took advantage of a little-noticed provision in the stimulus bill Congress passed in March to get a $9.7 million tax refund. Then, it asked a bankruptcy judge to authorize the same amount as bonuses to nine executives.

The rig operator is one of dozens of oil companies and contractors now claiming hundreds of millions of dollars in tax rebates. They are employing a provision of the $2.2 trillion stimulus law, called the CARES act, that gives them more latitude to deduct recent losses.

“This is a stealth bailout for the oil and gas industry,” said Jesse Coleman, a senior researcher with Documented, a watchdog group tracking the tax claims. It’s geared to companies “that have been losing money over the last few years — and now they get that money back as a check from the taxpayers. That’s exactly what the oil industry has been doing.”

relates to ‘Stealth Bailout’ Shovels Millions of Dollars to Oil Companies
Electronic drilling with cyber chairs Source: Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc.

The change wasn’t aimed only at the oil industry. However, its structure uniquely benefits energy companies that were raking in record profits in 2018 as crude prices reached $76.41 per barrel, only to see their fortunes flip a year later.

More than $1.9 billion in CARES Act tax benefits are being claimed by at least 37 oil companies, service firms and contractors, according to a Bloomberg News review of recent filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Besides Diamond Offshore, which declined to comment, recipients include oil producer Occidental Petroleum Corp. and refiner Marathon Petroleum Corp.

Read More: Occidental Seeking Federal Lifeline For U.S. Oil Industry

Other oil companies say they didn’t lobby Congress for the change, which is widely available across all industries. “We did not request any benefit, but we are obligated to follow the tax laws as passed by Congress, which apply to all corporate manufacturers nationwide,” said Jamal Kheiry, a spokesman for Marathon, which got a $411 million benefit.

Congress embedded the tax change governing losses in the stimulus measure early on, as lawmakers moved rapidly in March to steer trillions of dollars in aid to coronavirus-ravaged workers and companies. Alongside expanded unemployment payments and payroll loan programs, lawmakers saw an opportunity to harness the tax code to help get cash flowing to companies struggling to pay rent, workers and insurance.

It “was sold as help for the little guy — help for small business,” said Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow with the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “In the name of ‘small business,’ we’re shoveling out billions of dollars to big corporations and rich guys.”

The provision loosened rules governing how businesses deduct net operating losses — incurred when deductible expenses exceed gross income. For years, companies were able to apply those net operating loss deductions to previous tax returns as well as going forward — but Congress ruled out retroactive relief as part of the 2017 tax cut law.

Tax Law Changes May Limit Benefits of New Loss Carryback Perk

That new forward-focused approach works well when the economy is expanding, but the promise of using today’s losses as tomorrow’s deductions isn’t much help to coronavirus-battered companies with no guarantee they will survive long enough to claim them. So in the stimulus package, Congress gave businesses the chance to carry back all their losses — and claim immediate tax refunds — for five years from 2018, 2019 and 2020.

“The thought was temporarily we should bring them back so that firms that are seeing significant losses in the next year or over the past year or two can carry those back and get some short-term liquidity,” said Garrett Watson, a senior policy analyst at the Tax Foundation, a non-profit that supports pro-growth tax policies.

Traditionally, the ability to deduct net operating losses is meant to ensure companies get fair tax treatment even amid volatility, Watson said — a plus for the notoriously boom-and-bust oil industry. “You are going to see the biggest benefits for firms like oil and gas that are seeing volatile profits — and now, of course, extreme losses,” he said.

The combination of big losses now and the congressional tax changes mean it may be years before some oil companies have to pay corporate income taxes at all.

“We’re going to have some large losses this year,” ConocoPhillips Executive Vice President Don Wallette said in an April 30 earnings call. The company is in “a zero-tax-paying position in the U.S. and expect to remain there for quite some time,” Wallette said.

There’s no limit on how the new refunds can be used — and even bankrupt firms can get them.

Oil for Less Than Nothing? Here’s How That Happened: QuickTake

Consider Diamond Offshore. Once one of the world’s largest drilling rig contractors, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on April 26 after crude prices plunged along with demand for its high-tech drillships.

In a first quarter filing, Diamond, which is majority owned by Loews Corp., said it had recognized a tax benefit of $9.7 million as a result of the carryback change. In an emergency motion filed with a federal bankruptcy court May 1, the company asked for the freedom to dole out $16.7 million in cash incentives to 85 of its 2,300 full-time employees, including as much as $9.7 million for nine senior executives.

The company said at the time that deteriorating market conditions and the collapse of Diamond’s stock had made its existing equity-based bonus program “largely worthless.” The tax filing did not specify how the $9.7 million would be used.

Dozens of other oil businesses have reported reaping the benefits, including $55 million for Denver-based Antero Midstream Corp., $41.2 million for supplier Oil States International Inc. and $96 million for Oklahoma-based producer Devon Energy Corp.

Occidental Petroleum, which enlisted its employees to ask Congress to “provide liquidity to the energy industry,” said it now anticipates a cash refund of about $195 million as a result of the carryback provision and a separate change in the stimulus bill that allows the immediate refund of unused alternative minimum tax credits. An Occidental spokesperson declined to comment.

Millions in Refunds
National Oilwell Varco Inc., a manufacturer of oil and gas equipment, expects a $123 million refund by carrying back its 2019 losses and applying them to its 2014 tax filing.

San Antonio-based refiner Valero Energy Corp. recognized an extra $110 million by carrying back losses to 2015 — when the corporate tax rate was 35% instead of the current 21%.

Valero spokeswoman Lillian Riojas said that is tied to tax losses generated in the first quarter, since the company did not generate a net operating loss for federal income tax purposes in 2018 or 2019. And she said the actual refund will be dependent “not only on the company’s performance for the remainder of the year, but also on the impact” of other tax provisions.

The benefits are “turbo-charged,” said Rosenthal, with the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. That’s because businesses can carry back losses to offset income at a higher corporate tax rate of 35%, before the 2017 tax cut law lowered it 14 points. “Getting those losses at 35% is very, very favorable — especially in 2020 when the losses are going to be devastatingly large.”

The filings themselves reveal only part of the picture. Private companies are able to generate tax refunds too — without disclosing it to the SEC. And while some public companies said they benefited from the tax break, they didn’t reveal by how much.

For instance, refiner Phillips 66 boasted an effective income tax rate of just 2% for the first quarter — well below the federal statutory income tax rate of 21% — partly because of the carryback. But the company did not specify the amount of its expected refund.

House Democrats Unveil $3 Trillion Aid Bill With Cash for States

Dennis Nuss, a spokesman for Phillips 66, declined to comment when reached by phone Thursday. Representatives for Oil States, National Oilwell Varco, Antero and Devon didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

The importance of the provision hasn’t been lost on President Donald Trump’s administration. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette recommended oil companies consider taking advantage of the expanded deduction in an April 21 interview with Bloomberg TV, calling it one of several “important liquidity tools that are going to help the industry.”

Congressional tax analysts initially estimated that the expanded loss carryback provision would cost $25 billion over 10 years — just when used by corporations. Now, some are questioning whether the final pricetag could be much higher, and Democrats are seeking to limit the value of the tax break after raising concerns it overwhelmingly helps corporations and the wealthy.

In a new stimulus bill advanced Tuesday, House Democrats proposed scaling back the provision so companies could only apply losses back to 2018. Their plan also would prevent companies with “excessive” executive compensation or stock buybacks from claiming the tax break — a change that would be retroactive back to March.

Rosenthal stressed that it was logical for Congress to help businesses that were profitable before the pandemic. “But the CARES Act goes too far, tilting its benefits overwhelmingly to the wealthiest Americans,” he said in an essay. “I think Congress did not know the extent of what it was doing.”

— With assistance by Ari Natter, Laura Davison, David Wethe, Kevin Crowley, Leslie Pappas, and Rachel Adams-Heard

Canada Orders Immediate Ban on Assault Weapons in Wake of Deadly Mass Shooting

PM Justin Trudeau said the government had been in the process of introducing the ban when its agenda was overturned by the pandemic.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada attending a news conference in Ottawa on Friday. Credit…Blair Gable/Reuters
New York Times, by Ian Austen, May 1, 2020

OTTAWA — Nearly two weeks after the deadliest mass shooting in Canada’s history, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday introduced an immediate ban on what he described as “military-style assault weapons.”

“These weapons were designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to kill the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time,” Mr. Trudeau said. “There is no use and no place for such weapons in Canada.”

The ban means that Canadians will no longer be able to own rifles like the AR-15, the military-style weapon used in several mass shootings in the United States including those in Newtown, Conn.; Orlando, Fla.; and Parkland, Fla.

By introducing the ban, Mr. Trudeau partly fulfills a gun control promise he made during last year’s federal elections. He said the government had been in the process of introducing an assault weapons ban when its agenda was overturned by the coronavirus pandemic.

In making the announcement, Mr. Trudeau noted several gun killings and repeatedly cited the shooting rampage in rural Nova Scotia that left 23 people dead, including the gunman.

The gunman’s arsenal included two models banned on Friday, said Bill Blair, the country’s public safety minister.

The killer did not have a firearms license and many of his guns and rifles had been smuggled into Canada from the United States, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, highlighting one difficulty Canada may face in enforcing the new measure. The U.S. federal government has not barred assault weapons since a previous ban expired in 2004.

The swift response by Mr. Trudeau to the killings in Nova Scotia stands in contrast to that of officials in the United States, where repeated efforts to renew the now-lapsed assault weapons ban have failed.

A makeshift memorial for Royal Canadian Mounted Police Constable Heidi Stevenson, who was killed in the shooting in Nova Scotia. Credit…Tim Krochak/Reuters

The Canadian government has drawn up a list of about 1,500 gun models covered by the new ban. It estimates that about 100,000 such semiautomatic rifles are now legally owned by Canadians.

Mr. Trudeau said the government will introduce legislation to buy back the rifles, another part of his campaign promise, at a future date. Until then, owners have been given two years to keep their rifles although they can no longer use them, trade them or sell them except to buyers outside Canada with a permit. Gun shops can return any of the weapons they now have in stock to manufacturers.

While handguns and automatic weapons are tightly restricted in Canada, most rifles and shotguns have been more loosely regulated. The previous Conservative government shut down a registry for such weapons that had been set up after a man gunned down 14 young women and injured 13 others in 1989 at the École Polytechnique engineering school in Montreal.

That database was beset by technical problems and was deeply unpopular in rural areas. Mr. Trudeau has resisted calls from gun control groups to revive it.

Mr. Trudeau said on Friday that his planned legislation will also include a measure that will allow cities to ban handguns within their boundaries, another of his campaign pledges.

Andrew Scheer, the leader of the Conservative Party, repeated his longstanding opposition to any ban and buyback of military-style weapons, noting that many mass killers, including Gabriel Wortman in Nova Scotia, and other criminals use illegal firearms brought in from the United States.

“It’s easy but lazy government to ask the people who follow all the rules to follow more rules,” Mr. Scheer told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He also criticized Mr. Trudeau for introducing the measure through a cabinet order while Parliament is not meeting in normal sessions because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Wendy Cukier, the president of the Coalition for Gun Control, said that most mass shootings in Canada have involved legally owned rifles and said there’s evidence that the availability of military-style weapons may make such killings more likely.

“Most mass shooters are law abiding until they are not,” she said.

What motivated the 13.5-hour killing spree in Nova Scotia by Mr. Wortman, a denture fitter, remains unknown. It started in the tiny summer community of Portapique when Mr. Wortman assaulted his partner and tied her up. She escaped and he began shooting people inside and outside of their homes while he also set fire to several buildings, including some of his own properties.

After the police arrived shortly before midnight on April 18, they found two replica Royal Canadian Mounted Police cruisers registered to Mr. Wortman on fire and located a third at his full-time residence in Halifax. That led the police to believe, they said, that he may have committed suicide and was in one of the burning buildings.

But after hiding in the woods all night, Mr. Wortman’s partner told police that he was traveling in a fourth replica police car that did not have license plates. Investigators subsequently discovered that he had eluded them by driving through a farm field and then hiding in another town where he resumed his killing spree in the morning.

He was eventually shot and killed after pulling into a gas station while driving a car belonging to one of the victims.

Ms. Cukier acknowledged that the government will have to continually update its list to prevent manufacturers from circumventing the ban by modifying current models and reintroducing them as new weapons. Her group, she said, will recommend that future legislation focus more on a system in which gunmakers must get approval to sell specific weapons rather than on steps to ban the weapons.

And while her group generally takes stances that oppose those of the Conservatives, she agreed that more must be done about smuggled weapons.

“There are a lot of things that have to happen,” she said. “Most Canadians don’t know the extent to which our laws have been eroded.”

Alan Drummond, who has long pushed for more gun controls through the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians, praised Mr. Trudeau and members of his cabinet for their unequivocal statements about the need to ban assault weapons.

“What struck me was the absolute clarity and conviction,” he said.

Earthjustice map: Crude-by-rail Across America

Repost from Earthjustice.org
[Editor: I’m reposting this map today – it was recently updated and still highly relevant.  Earthjustice’s map shows Major Crude-by-Rail Accidents since 2012 (Red Symbols) and communities opposing Crude-by-Rail (Green Symbols).  – RS]

More crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents in 2013, than was spilled in the nearly four decades since the federal government began collecting data on such spills.

Since late 2012, as hydraulic fracturing and tar sands drilling created a glut of oil, the industry has scrambled to transport the fossil fuel from drill sites to the east and west coasts, where it can potentially be shipped overseas to more lucrative markets.

The increase in oil rail traffic, however, has not been matched with increased regulatory scrutiny. Oil trains are not subject to the same strict routing requirements placed on other hazardous materials; trains carrying explosive crude are permitted to pass directly through cities—with tragic results. A train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic on July 6, 2013, killing 47 people in the small community.

In the absence of more protective regulations, communities across the country are beginning to take matters in their own hands.

Legal Cases

Earthjustice represents groups across the country, fighting for protections from crude-by-rail:

FAQs: About Crude-By-Rail

Q. What are DOT-111s?

DOT-111s are rail cars designed to carry liquids, including crude oil, and have been in service in North America for several decades. They are prone to punctures, oil spills, fires and explosions and lack safety features required for shipping other poisonous and toxic liquids. As crude production in the United States has surged exponentially in recent years, these outdated rail cars have been used to transport the crude oil throughout the country.

The U.S. and Canadian government recognized decades ago that the DOT-111s were unsafe for carrying hazardous materials, finding that the chance of a “breach” (i.e., loss of contents, potentially leading to an explosion) is over 50% in some derailment scenarios.

U.S. and Canadian safety investigators have repeatedly found that DOT-111s are unsafe and recommended that they not be used for explosive or hazardous materials, including crude oil; however, the U.S. government’s proposal to phase out these rail cars fails to take sufficient or immediate action to protect the public.

Q. What is Bakken crude oil?

Bakken crude refers to oil from the Bakken shale formation which is primarily in North Dakota, where production has skyrocketed in recent years due to the availability of newer hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) techniques. The increase in the nation’s output of crude oil in 2013, mostly attributable to Bakken production, was the largest in the nation’s history.

Bakken crude is highly flammable, much more so than some crude oils. Today, Bakken crude moves in “unit trains” of up to 120 rail cars, as long as a mile and a half, often made up of unsafe DOT-111s.

Q. Are there alternative tank cars available?

Transporting Bakken crude by rail is risky under the best of scenarios because of its flammability. But legacy DOT-111s represent the worst possible option. All new tank cars built since October 2011 have additional some safety features that reduce the risk of spilled oil by 75%. Even so, safety investigators, the Department of Transportation, and the railroad industry believe tank cars need to be made even safer. Some companies are already producing the next-generation rail cars that are 85% more crashworthy than the DOT 111s. Petitioners support the safest alternatives available, and expect that the ongoing rulemaking process will phase out all unsafe cars.

In the meantime, an emergency prohibition on shipping Bakken crude in DOT-111s—which virtually everyone acknowledges is unreasonably dangerous—is required immediately. (Read about the formal legal petition filed on July 15, 2014.)

Q. What steps have U.S. and Canadian governments taken?

The U.S. government recognizes that Bakken crude oil should not be shipped in DOT 111 tank cars due to the risks, but has done shockingly little to limit their use.

In May 2014, the DOT issued a safety alert recommending—but not requiring—shippers to use the safest tank cars in their fleets for shipments of Bakken crude and to avoid using DOT 111 cars. Canada, in contrast, responded to the Lac Mégantic disaster with more robust action. It required the immediate phase-out of some DOT-111s, a longer phase-out of the remainder, and the railroads imposed a surcharge on their use to ship crude oil in the meantime.

In the absence of similar standards in the U.S., the inevitable result will be that newer, safer cars will be used to ship crude in Canada—while the U.S. fleet will end up with the most dangerous tank cars.

Obama vetoes GOP push to kill climate rules

Repost from The Hill

Obama vetoes GOP push to kill climate rules

By Timothy Cama – 12/19/15 08:35 AM EST 
Getty Images

President Obama has vetoed a pair of measures by congressional Republicans that would have overturned the main pillars of his landmark climate change rules for power plants.

The decision was widely expected, and Obama and his staff had repeatedly threatened the action as a way to protect a top priority and major part of his legacy.

The White House announced early Saturday morning, as Obama was flying to Hawaii for Christmas vacation, that he is formally not taking action on the congressional measures, which counts as a “pocket veto” under the law. “Climate change poses a profound threat to our future and future generations,” the president said in a statement about Republicans’ attempt to kill the carbon dioxide limits for existing power plants.

“The Clean Power Plan is a tremendously important step in the fight against global climate change,” Obama wrote, adding that “because the resolution would overturn the Clean Power Plan, which is critical to protecting against climate change and ensuring the health and well-being of our nation, I cannot support it.”

That rule from the Environmental Protection Agency mandates a 32 percent cut in the power sector’s carbon output by 2030.

He had a similar argument in support of his regulation setting carbon limits for newly-built fossil fuel power plants, saying the legislation against it “would delay our transition to cleaner electricity generating technologies by enabling continued build-out of outdated, high-polluting infrastructure.”

Congress passed the resolutions in November and December under the Congressional Review Act, a little-used law that gives lawmakers a streamlined way to quickly challenge regulations from the executive branch.

Obama had made clear his intent to veto the measures early on, so the passage by both GOP-led chambers of Congress was only symbolic.

The votes came before and during the United Nations’ major climate change conference in Paris, as an attempt to undermine Obama’s negotiating position toward an international climate pact.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and a vocal climate change doubter, said it’s important to send a message about congressional disapproval, even with Obama’s veto.

“While I fully expect these CRA resolutions to be vetoed, without the backing of the American people and the Congress, there will be no possibility of legislative resurrection once the courts render the final judgments on the president’s carbon mandates,” he said on the Senate floor shortly before the Senate’s action on the resolutions.

Twenty-seven states and various energy and business interests are suing the Obama administration to stop the existing plant rule, saying it violates the Clean Air Act and states’ constitutional rights.

They are seeking an immediate halt to the rule while it is litigated, something the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit could decide on later this month.

All Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential election want to overturn the rules.

In addition to the veto, Obama is formally sending the resolutions back to the Senate to make clear his intent to disapprove of them.

Obama has now vetoed seven pieces of legislation, including five this year, the first year of his presidency with the GOP controlling both chambers of Congress.